This academic year I am stationed in State College, PA, which unlike any of the other cities I have lived in (New York, Paris, Boston, and Miami) affords a nice view of the stars at night. Because I have lived in cities whose lighting prevented me from appreciating the stars, I am so unaccustomed to stargazing that I often forget to look up at the sky before going to bed. But when I do, I am filled with the “awe and admiration” that the philosopher Immanuel Kant so eloquently captures in his Critique of Practical Reason:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
I have loved this quotation ever since I encountered it in a course on Kant’s ethics, but it has become more personally significant to me of late. I won’t elaborate here on what Kant meant; instead, I want to depict the place that looking up at “the starry heavens” holds in my life.
Many of us—either through a personal brush with death or by witnessing someone else’s, or simply by becoming more aware of aging, come to worry about the meaning of our lives and the real significance of everyday concerns. (Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession best describes the kind of crisis that arises from such mid-life meditations.) For me, that’s where looking up at the night sky comes in.
First, at an intellectual level, I reflect on how vast the universe is and how long it has taken for light of these stars to reach me (the stars in the Orion Nebula have taken 1,344 years!). When I do this, I realize how tiny a speck of dust I am on the scale of space and of time. And this allows me to put into perspective all the petty little things (the slow-moving line at Starbucks, the dropped Internet connection) that irritate me daily. But it also puts my very existence into perspective. I have been here but a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the time of the universe, and whether I die in my 30s or 80s, there is little difference on a cosmic scale. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, expresses this idea better than I can:
What a tiny part of the boundless abyss of time has been allotted to each of us - and this is soon vanished in eternity; what a tiny part of the universal substance and the universal soul; how tiny in the whole earth the mere clod on which you creep. Reflecting on all this, think nothing important other than active pursuit where your own nature leads and passive acceptance of what universal nature bring. (Meditations Book XII.32)
Like Marcus, I believe that the smallness of our lives—far from being a cause of despair—gives us reason to live with greater purpose. According to him, happiness meant living in accordance with one’s rational nature and being indifferent to things out of one’s control (like the line at Starbucks!). Although I don’t share all the principles behind his conception of happiness, at my best, I try not to waste a second since any one may be my last.
Second, in moments of fantasy, I personify the stars and imagine how they’d laugh at the little things that aggravate me. The stars of the majestic Orion Nebula (pictured here) don’t give a damn about my Internet connection. At most, they chuckle and shake their heads when they see me grumbling about my Wi-Fi. This is something like “the view from above” advocated by Marcus (now you know who one of my favorite philosophers is!):
Take a view from above - look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of. (Meditations Book IX. 28)
In this exercise, Marcus imagined himself seeing all the events taking place on earth at that moment and put them in the perspective of all the generations that preceded him and of those that would follow him. This exercise helped him focus on the things that matter (the social good, for him) and the things that don’t (fame, for instance). Placing myself in the perspective of the stars makes the exercise of viewing the earth from above even more powerful.
Third, returning to Kant, looking up at the night sky fills me with a mood of admiration that floods over and washes my anxieties away. Just as the sun is said to “chase the clouds away,” so too, the night sky dispels my earthly ennui. Letting myself experience this mood is as stirring as any intellectual or imaginative exercise. This mood is different from the feeling I experience looking down at a valley from the height of a mountain or viewing the sun setting over the sea. It’s more somber and more poignant.
One of the lessons I take from looking up at the starry heavens is this: to live more deliberately than I would otherwise, to not waste any time.
This is all pretty basic. But if you’re like me and forget to put things into perspective, then step outside and have a look at the stars at night. Or feel their presence beyond the blue sky during the day. Let them fill you with awe and admiration.